My mom speaks in 10,000-steps-a-day terms: “I already took my 10,000 today,” or “It’s been a 14,000-steps day.” Ever since I gave her a Fitbit in 2015 she’s been a total convert. Recently, I snooped on her statistics, and she averaged 13,500 daily steps last month. She’d always been a person who liked walking, but having a specific goal of a minimum of 10,000 daily steps helps her stay more active. Taking more steps a day has made it easier for her to lose a little bit of weight and manage her high blood pressure.
I took to her on that and now also like to get my 10,000 steps a day when possible. But sticking to healthy habits wasn’t necessarily easy for me in 2020. Unlike me, my mom made no excuses and averaged almost 7,000 steps a day when Spain was in total lockdown between March and early June of 2020. She did it by pacing her really-not-that-big Barcelona apartment. In those same weeks, I was sheltering in place in California and trying to get some activity by using a stationary bike. The only way I could make the activity attainable and not numbingly boring was by pedaling and reading at the same time.
The whole experience got me thinking: Are 10,000 steps a day really necessary? Was my tiresome pedaling equivalent to my previous frequent walks? And where did the whole 10,000 steps a day come from, anyway?
The Most Important Thing Is to Get Moving
Even if you’re not a natural-born walker like my mother, you still should be finding other ways to move that are appropriate for your mobility level. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends “that adults do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity” to prevent cardiovascular disease.
The organization defines an activity as “moderate-intensity” if a person can talk but not sing while doing it. During a vigorous-intensity activity, “a person cannot say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.” That could be a 30-minute brisk daily walk — but also a swim, run, rowing session or some biking.
A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found an 11% reduction in risk for all-cause mortality — death from any cause — for a dose of 150 minutes per week of walking and a reduction of 10% for the same number of minutes of cycling. The study — with 280,000 walking participants and 187,000 cycling participants monitored over years — also found that walking or cycling had the largest effects in that initial exposure category “with decreasing rates of beneficial effects as the exposure to walking or cycling increased.” The study explains that the sweet spot to get the maximum benefit from walking is in the first 120 minutes per week and the first 100 minutes per week for cycling.
That study isn’t alone in disclosing the benefits of walking. A 2020 Journal of the American Medical Association paper on the association of daily steps and mortality among U.S. adults also concluded that “greater numbers of steps per day were associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality.” To reach this conclusion, the researchers examined data from groups taking 4,000, 8,000 and 12,000 steps per day.
So Where Did 10,000 Steps Come From?
If you buy a Fitbit, it’ll start you off with a 10,000-step goal. “It adds up to about five miles each day for most people, which includes about 30 minutes of daily exercise,” Fitbit states on its website, circling back once again to the basic guideline of at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. I’m 5’4” and it takes me more than an hour to walk the 10,000 steps.
The Mayo Clinic recommends defining how many steps you generally take on a regular day — with the help of a tracker — and then setting short-term goals, “adding 1,000 steps a day for two weeks by incorporating a planned walking program into your schedule.” That way you can work toward achieving a long-term step goal of 10,000.
The thing is, 10,000 is an easy-to-remember round number. It’s also an achievable goal daily. The whole counting of steps has a very compelling quality to it. Author David Sedaris wrote a whole essay about his Fitbit adoption and long walks that was published in The New Yorker. He refers to his fitness wearable as a “master” and talks about managing to take 60,000 steps a day. Granted, reading about his nine-hour walks makes anyone feel a bit lazy. But the essay also makes some very good arguments in favor of the whole counting of steps.
Even after trading my Fitbit for an Apple Watch — which has a system of rings and annoyingly buries the number of steps behind several taps — I still keep thinking in 10,000-steps-a-day terms and making that one of my goals. It’s just easy to remember and easy-ish to achieve.
For certain desk-bound professionals, most of whom have been working from home for months, something as simple as that can make a difference between a completely sedentary life and one with the right amount of exercise. Or some amount of exercise.
Which reminds me: Those 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity shouldn’t be your only wellness goal. The HHS also recommends doing muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups at least twice a week.
Now let me call my mom. I want to see how her day is going and ask how many steps she managed to take today. Getting her hooked on planks or push-ups might prove difficult, though.
Disclosure: Patricia Puentes’ husband works for Health at Apple. Ask Media Group doesn’t profit from the recommendations in this article.